At the end of September 1976, the notorious but iconic Leeds United captain Billy Bremner was informed, at the age of 33, that his services were no longer required by the club after a gigantic 773 first team games. Before we knew it, he was on his way east to join the Tigers and, on October 2nd, wore the amber and black for the first time. Four decades on, we look back at the move…
So, it’s 40 years since Billy Bremner’s City debut. As signings by City of illustrious players in the twilight of their careers go, this one, you would think, should be up there with the best of them.
Except that, to many, it didn’t feel quite like such a big deal at the time. Granted, his City debut at home to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest attracted over 16,000 punters to the Ark, which was well up on recent attendances, and for a good part of the what remained of the 1976/77 season there remained a “Bremner Bounce” on crowds, albeit one which steadily diminished as the season wore on.
But for all of that, most if not all of the City regulars of the period were, if not necessarily underwhelmed by the signing, decidedly in two minds about it. Those who were the most excited were by and large the ones who supplemented the existing support that season following Bremner’s arrival, and after the initial media splashes it was no big thing. Kevin Keegan going to Newcastle United it most certainly was not by any stretch of the imagination, and one imagines that, if City had not signed Bremner but a player of comparable stature in the game at that time – Francis Lee, say – there would have been a great deal more enthusiasm over it.
So why was this?
In a nutshell, for one simple reason: prior to joining City, Bremner was one of the most notorious and disliked players at the one club that the Tiger Nation hated above all others.
The Leeds United team created by Don Revie were, as far as the quality of the football was concerned, a hugely impressive bunch – a formidable blend of skill, tactical guile, physical toughness and hard graft, all bound together with an irrepressible team spirit and sound organisation, off the field and on it . At their best they were a delight to watch.
But simultaneously, they were about as horrible a football team as you could imagine, possessed of a deeply cynical “win at all costs” mentality that manifested itself in various ways, from referee-haranguing and verbal intimidation of opponents to the more physical sly shirt tugs and elbows of “Sniffer” Clarke and the overt, stud-baring savagery of Norman “Bites Yer Legs” Hunter.
Why Revie chose to order or condone such behaviour goodness only knows: his team were easily good enough to prosper without resorting to it and opponents were if anything spurred on by it.
And if one player was the true embodiment of the schizophrenia of that Leeds side it was their captain, midfielder Billy Bremner, who had followed in the boots of a remarkably similar player, Bobby Collins. Flame-haired, a mere five feet five inches tall but immensely tough, a product of Stirling’s notorious Raploch sink estate, a fiercely aggressive competitor – and a most gifted footballer. One of those stories about Alf Ramsey that might or might not be true is that, at a dinner following an England versus Scotland game, he remarked to Bremner: “You’re a horrible little bastard, aren’t you? But by God you can play football”. Apocryphal or not, it sums Bremner up perfectly.
One famous incident which epitomised him – and indeed the Leeds team of the time – was his foul on Dave Mackay in the Spurs hard man’s first game back after twice breaking his leg. Footage of the challenge, in which Bremner is said to have gone straight for the the leg that Mackay broke, has not been recorded for posterity but Mackay’s less-than-impressed reaction was captured in one of the most celebrated English football photos of the 1960s.
One of the trademarks of Leeds matches of the era was the angry mass confrontations with opposing players, with much shoving and jostling, usually erupting when Leeds were struggling to take control of a game. If not instigated by Bremner, he could often be seen on TV footage running 30 or 40 yards to join in.
Fair to say, therefore, that Billy Bremner was not a massively popular figure among football folk, for all his ability.
In Hull, along with other places in Yorkshire, the anti-Leeds feeling was especially strong, as fans of local teams had to stomach hordes of their fellow townsfolk, in their search for glory, heading to Leeds on Saturdays or (more likely) “supporting” Leeds United from the comfort of their armchairs, to say nothing of the disproportionate and fawning coverage accorded to Leeds by the BBC, YTV and the Yorkshire Post. Their supporters – many of whom were also out-and-out thugs – generally were an arrogant, sneering bunch with a sense of entitlement that would have outdone even that of the Arsenal fans of today. No change there then, you might say.
Typical of attitudes towards Bremner in Hull at the time were those of my parents. At that time both were City passholders (before, like quite a few City fans of the era, jumping aboard the rugby bandwagon that was starting to gather pace in Hull in the mid 70s) and fairly vocal in their distaste for Leeds and Billy Bremner in particular. My late mother, in particular, used to refer to him as “the thug”, and reduced my dad and I to hysterics one Saturday night when she remarked, while we were watching a classic display of Leeds unpleasantness on Match Of The Day: “You know what, I bet he’s even got bad breath”.
“Ah, but you wouldn’t say that if he played for us”, I replied. That remark was promptly dismissed by my mum on the grounds that the point was academic, since Bremner would not be donning the black and amber at any time in the future, and there was no riposte from me as she was surely right.
And that was another thing about the Bremner signing: nobody saw it coming. There wasn’t the degree of press speculation over signings that exists nowadays, and certainly no suggestion, until it happened or maybe just beforehand, that Bremner would be coming east or that City had the remotest interest in him.
So it was that the Tiger Nation, albeit not as whelmed as it might have been, filed into the Ark on 2nd October 1976 to witness Bremner’s debut.
And yes, we all craned our necks as City took the field to the strains of “Tiger Rag” in order to catch our first glimpse of him in the amber and black. And yes, we all applauded him as he emerged from the tunnel. And yes, we all went completely mental after Bremner stroked a free kick over the Forest wall and, with the entire place – players and fans alike – all seemingly in a state of suspended animation just like in the old kids’ TV programme The Magic Boomerang – the ball bounced once before nestling languidly just inside John Middleton’s left-hand post. And yes, we all chortled lustily when we thought of how Cloughie would be grinding his teeth because his nemesis from his ill-fated stint as successor to Don Revie had got one over on him again. But that’s just the way of these things.
Of course, this being City, there was to be no fairytale ending. Bremner didn’t pull up any trees for us, but that is to a large extent because he was – unlike at Leeds – surrounded by players who, despite their obvious talent, were basically too idle ever to display the level of consistency that would have made City a force: in many ways City, in the Second Division at the time, embodied the nation’s attitude of indolence, generated by the toxic social and political climate that prevailed in the UK for most of the 1970s (not that they were the only ones: the failure of the national side to qualify for a single World Cup during the 1970s was another symptom of the same malaise).
As far as I recall, though, he took his 68 games in the amber and black seriously. There were – partly because of a reputation for which he largely had only himself to blame, and partly because, for the reasons explained above, many City fans never really warmed to him – rumours that he was an agitator in the dressing room, constantly trying to undermine managers (he played under three: Kaye, Collins and Houghton), but none of this was ever publicly substantiated, his evident eagerness to make the transition into management notwithstanding. Equally, though, rumours also abounded, and remain similarly unsubstantiated, that he had been promised a managerial role at City after he retired.
In the end he turned out for City for the last time on 15th April 1978, a 0-1 reverse at home to Fulham, and then he was gone, off to manage Doncaster Rovers, with the City fans agog with indifference and their overall dislike and mistrust of him not really dented.
There were to be no glorious homecomings on the occasions when his subsequent career brought him back to City. He could probably never have been one of us, because his position as one of them was too entrenched.